Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Heavenly Creatures (1994, New Zealand)

Dir. Peter Jackson




Any small incident of violent crime would cause a stir in a peaceful and conservative little city like Christchurch, in New Zealand, in the 1950s. One can only imagine the shock and terror delivered across town by the news of a homicide committed by two teenage girls. In the summer of 1954, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were charged with murdering the former’s mother and, soon after, found guilty. Unsurprisingly, their trial, during which Pauline’s unearthed diaries served to support an unsuccessful insanity defense, garnered sensationalized press coverage.

The media’s specific and intense focus on the accused’s allegedly unhealthy friendship stoked such fear and concern that the entire case went down as a cautionary tale about not only juvenile delinquency, but relationships considered even vaguely homosexual. No wonder those media portrayals of the trial, together with the mass hysteria surrounding it, reinforced pre-existing anti-lesbian attitudes and a deep-seated association between lesbianism and criminality.

But 40 years later, Peter Jackson, a New Zealand native, decided that in lieu of a moralizing condemnation of or a tactless justification for the matricide, a nonjudgmental look would better befit his own reconstruction of events leading up to the killing. He took an intimate glimpse into the girls’ shared universe as his primary approach to the subject-matter—as the movie’s first intertitle suggests, this is their story. 

Jackson insists that a trip to Pauline and Juliet’s fantasy world should be as giddy an experience as possible. Immediately after mixing in faint screams at the end of brief newsreel footage that promotes Christchurch as basically a tranquil urbanized haven, he shows the girls, blood-soaked and shrieking, sprinting frantically through the woods, intercut with dreamy black-and-white shots of them dashing happily across the deck of a ship. Soon in flashback, the beginnings of the friendship are presented as a series of shots brimming with elation and ecstasy.

Throughout the pair’s bonding, the camera seems to grab us by the wrist and drag us into their exalted states of mind. It chases the girls as they run around, pushes in on their enraptured faces, glides high above their heads, and circles them fast as they sing and strip down. Connecting over childhood scars and common interests in film and medieval fiction, the girls romanticize illness, blow things out of all proportion, and dream of succeeding in Hollywood. They share an idol and an enemy in Mario Lanza and Orson Welles, respectively, and collaborate on crafting stories and clay figurines to build and populate their fictitious kingdom. Jackson, accordingly, brings their inventions to life and translates their exaggerated emotions into wild compositions and camera movements. Castles become life-sized and clay monarchs animated, and the girls wholeheartedly welcome their alternative lives.

The excitement doesn’t end there—we have yet to enter the Fourth World, an absolute paradise of music and art envisioned by Juliet. With Pauline, she finally discovers the key to her version of heaven. Upon learning her parents will travel overseas without her for weeks, she plays the most miserable human being on earth, runs off to a hill surrounded by vast fields, and throws herself to the ground. Jackson’s dazzling aerial shots here bolster the scene’s melodramatic affectation, and the special effects that morph the fields into the Fourth World add to the movie’s surrealistic touches.

As this tragedy transitions to Juliet’s hospitalization, the discovery of the imaginary heaven and their temporary separation further consolidate the girls’ bond. Seeing anyone that comes between them as a threat, the girls start erecting barriers to defend their ever-expanding universe. Interestingly enough, it seems to be their mothers who pose the greatest threat; in the end, Pauline’s mother, whom the girls regard as the mastermind behind their impending separation, falls victim to their murderous schemes.

It all seems like a variation of the typical oedipal narrative about daughters hating mothers. But aside from female authority figures such as their mothers and teachers at Girls’ High School, older males, including patriarchs, appear equally menacing. Disdained by Juliet and Pauline as foolish and disgusting, these men—a boarder, priest, psychiatrist, and father—emerge in grotesque extreme close-up during sex or a therapy session, or while stealthily gazing down at the sleeping girls. Except Juliet’s father who earns her sympathy due to her hatred for her mother, all these men are cruelly slain by the figurines in the girls’ imagination.

Pauline and Juliet’s flight into fantasy is their own way of resisting the adults’ oppression. Whatever the reason, the grownups do not hesitate to declare the friendship an anomaly, not merely because it’s obsessive, but most importantly because they are suspected of having something that is a violation of the society’s morals or, by the standards of rational-minded men, an illness. Jackson, of course, does not try to rationalize the girls’ horrible deed or create a distorted representation of the crime. While relegating the details of the trial to the postscript at the end of the film, he chose to probe the girls’ minds and their shared world, rather than reiterating the images of their relationship that the media and the public, with certain bias and prejudice, had ingrained in their own imaginations. In Heavenly Creatures, which marks the debut film for both Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, Jackson also draws out indelible performances from his amply talented ingénues.



Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)


BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013, Kechiche)



Love stories abound in film, and have been told in various forms and styles, but very rarely do these stories feature front and center an erotic love between two people outside the heterosexual mold, let alone one between two females. A shifting socio-political landscape for LGBT equality over the past few decades has turned the entertainment industry’s attention to the needs of those previously underserved. Their stories then formed a distinctive sub-genre, and their fictional surrogates began to figure more heavily in mainstream movies, albeit in limited roles. The representation of gay characters continues to incrementally improve, and so has the visibility of same-sex pairings as a viable alternative in romance narratives. Although there is a long way to go, homosexuality is becoming a taken-for-granted part of our moviegoing experience, and today’s knowledgeable audiences demand more quality productions about this specific subject-matter. Additionally, as gay experience is more thoroughly integrated into everyday cinema, the distinctions between traditional and gay romance are blurring, with the latter resisting habitual genre pigeonholing and gaining universal appeal.

That’s where, I suppose, Blue is the Warmest Color comes into the picture. Written and directed by the Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche and starring French actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, the unanimously anointed Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival premiered to critical acclaim, but also stirred up the controversies everyone interested has heard of by now. While rebuffing the accusations of the male gaze or a patriarchal view on female sexuality (“Do I need to be a woman to talk about love between women?”), Kechiche stressed his intention was to portray a love that is at once absolute and cosmic. Meanwhile in her interview with “The Daily Beast,” Seydoux made a point of emphasizing that what’s dealt with in the movie is more than homosexuality. The director and the actress, apparently no longer on speaking terms after accusations of what amounts to bullying on set, unified to bring the universality of love to the forefront of the discussion.

Love is indeed everything and everywhere in the life of Adèle, played by Exarchopoulos, a sexually confused teenager who shares a turbulent affair with an older artist named Emma (Seydoux). If this synopsis smacks of utter banality, an actual unfolding of these chapters of her life is quite engaging and teems with intense emotion, sensuality, and of course, body parts—especially faces. Unabashedly displaying his obsession with his newly discovered muse, Kechiche keeps the camera in such close proximity to her that one can almost imagine him having some sort of separation anxiety whenever she slips out of frame. Hers is not the only face that dominates the screen—an overreliance on close-ups is essentially the director’s default mode; he shoves the camera into the faces of all those who interact with or surround Adèle. Such ultra-tight framing is not merely intended to reinforce the character’s subjectivity. It also seems Kechiche exploits those close-ups to establish the visual language that actively discourages looking beyond the surface of the characters’ actions and feelings.

Apart from his monotonous shooting style, Kechiche insists on crude literalness in splicing scenes and visual elements together. Early on, Adèle’s teacher and classmates discuss the French realist novel “La vie de Marianne” in her high-school literature class. The words or phrases they read aloud here include, “I am a woman. And I tell my story,” “her heart was missing something,” “exchange glances,” and “love at first sight.” Kechiche won’t just get the story started; he goes out of his way to announce what happens in the scenes that follow. So as expected, once Adèle has a few experiments under her belt, she meets and falls in love with Emma. They eat and have sex. Throughout, Kechiche draws symbolic parallels between Adèle’s voracious appetite for food and for sex. But his presentation is so deliberately transparent that the audience cannot possibly miss what her oyster shucking during a meal with Emma’s family signifies. And those two family dinners—one at Emma’s liberal home and the other at Adèle’s practical-minded one—are supposed to suggest the couple’s class differences. But the director’s attempt at social commentary feels half-baked, despite the inclusion of other party scenes of similar import.

Then finally, there are those notorious sex scenes. The most sensuous and tactile moments in the film, they have been criticized for idealized images of the female body. The critics’ suspicions have been sort of confirmed by Kechiche himself: he intended to shoot those scenes like paintings or sculptures. In fact, the pair’s postcoital position recalls, say, Gustave Courbet’s Le Sommeil, and their lovemaking looks extra-beautiful under carefully designed lighting. But even outside the bed, shots that constitute the lovers’ courtship are by turns naturalistic and highly romanticized—yes, with lots of close-ups and the camera’s lingering gaze on their faces.  

There’s no denying that representations of women’s sexuality have been, and remain, an important issue. But to uncritically invoke the male-gaze concept, essentially a product of second-wave psychoanalytic feminism, is to base the criticism on heteronormative/gender-essentialist assumptions; to say that these sex scenes were only orchestrated to arouse the male spectator is to overlook the female viewer who might find the couple’s sex just as exciting. Indeed, reactions in lesbian communities have been wildly mixed, as some individuals' subjective romantic experiences are inevitably more aligned with the film's depiction than others. Keeping women making love in medium shot, for instance (the sex scenes in Chantal Akerman's  Je tu il elle spring to mind), helps achieve an admirable sense of distance and neutrality, but it may not necessarily be the sole way of communicating the bliss of two people desiring and consuming each other. In spite of the film’s slightly clunky transition or awkward class-commentary, Kechiche is consistent about his thoroughly literal, primitive approach; close-ups mean intimacy and an exchange of looks means desiring. Whatever the director’s flaws, co-leads Exarchopoulos and Seydoux succeed in channeling the kind of love he wanted to depictwith infinite tenderness.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

86th Academy Awards Predictions & WINNERS











My last-minute predictions for the 2014 Oscars:


Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Gravity
Should win:
Should have been here: I could do without more than half of these nominees, but the inclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis or Before Midnight would have been nice. But year after year, the AMPAS just refuses to play nice.


Best Director
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity   --  WINNER
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron for GRAVITY
Could win: Steven McQueen
Should win: Martin Scorsese
Should have been here: The Coen bros, or Richard Linklater.


Best Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine  -- WINNER
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will win: Cate Blanchett
Could win:
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Should have been here: Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)


Best Actor in a Leading Role
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club  -- WINNER

Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Could win:
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should have been here: Oscar Isaac



Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club -  WINNER

Will win: Jared Leto
Could win:
Should win: Leto, not the movie, is fine.


Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Sally Hawkins
Should have been here: Julianne Nicholson (August Osage County)


Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Philomena
12 Years a Slave  -- WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Philomena
Should win: Before Midnight



Original Screenplay
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her  -- WINNER
Nebraska

Will win: AMERICAN HUSTLE
Could win: Her
Should win: Nebraska
Should have been here: Someone on Twitter suggested an Oscar drinking game where you take a shot each time something wins that should have been Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm joining it.


Film Editing
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity  --  WINNER
12 Years a Slave

Will win: Captain Phillips
Could win: Gravity
Should win: Gravity
Should have been here: Wolf of Wall Street.


Cinematography
The Grandmaster
Gravity  --  WINNER
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Prisoners

Will win: Gravity
Could win:
Should win: Inside Llewyn Davis
Should have been here: This is probably the best group among this year's nominees across all categories, and I'd have a hard time taking one out to replace it with another. But one person I'd squeeze in is Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave. What I liked most about that movie was his cinematography -- see: those landscapes of Louisiana, group shots of the slaves on plantations or at the New Orleans slave market, and close-ups of Ejiofor's face.


Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Will win: American Hustle
Could win: The Great Gatsby
Should win:


Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club  --  WINNER
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will win: The Lone Ranger
Could win: Dallas Buyers Club


Production Design
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
Her
12 Years a Slave

Will win: The Great Gatsby
Could win: 12 Years a Slave


Original Score
The Book Thief (John Williams)
Gravity (Steven Price)  -- WINNER
Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
Philomena (Alexandre Desplat)
Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

Will win: Her
Could win: Gravity
Should have been here: I prefer Thomas Newman's other scoring feat last year for Steven Soderberg's Side Effects, which along with Soderbergh's cinematography reminded me of Polanski's urban horror-thrillers such as Rosemary's Baby.


Visual Effects
Gravity  --  WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Will win: Gravity
Could win: Gravity will sweep these visual technical categories Life of Pi-style.


Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Haven't seen Lone Survivor or The Hobbit.
Should win:  All Is Lost



Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity  -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Usually blockbusters with critical backing win in both of the sound categories.
Should win: Will be still playing that drinking game!


Original Song
"Happy" from Despicable Me 2
"Let It Go" from Frozen  -- WINNER
"The Moon Song" from Her
"Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Will win: Let It Go from Frozen
Could win: Alone Not Yet.. wait.


Foreign Language Film
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)  --  WINNER
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will win: The Great Beauty (Italy)
Could win: The Hunt (Denmark)


Animated Feature Film
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen  --  WINNER
The Wind Rises

Will win: Frozen
Could win: The Wind Rises


Documentary Feature
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom -- WINNER

Will win: 20 Feet from Stardom
Could win: The Act of Killing



Documentary Short
CaveDigger
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life  --  WINNER
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will win: CaveDigger


Animated Short Film
Feral
Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot  -- WINNER
Possessions
Rooms on the Broom

Will win: Get a Horse!


Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo
Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Helium  --  WINNER
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?
The Voorman Problem

Will win: Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Could win: Helium




* # of wins

Gravity -- 5 Oscars
12 Years a Slave -- 3 Oscars
American Hustle -- 2 Oscars
Dallas Buyers Club -- 2 Oscars
Frozen -- 2 Oscars
Her -- 1 Oscar
Blue Jasmine -- 1 Oscar
The Great Gatsby -- 1 Oscar
Lone Ranger -- 1 Oscar




Friday, February 21, 2014

Short Take: Stranger by the Lake (2013)



STRANGER BY THE LAKE
Dir. Alain Guiraudie

With precision and rigor, Guiraudie cultivates suspense by appropriating the mores and behavior patterns of a secluded gay society. The act of cruising/looking here, for instance, initially connotes lust but after the community learns of the murder, registers caution. While it universalizes sexual desire and thereby treats the homosexual experience as a banal subject, the movie is also an intriguing fictionalization of the routinely invoked Freudian conflict between Eros and death instinct. A sequence of the same structure repeats 10 times with a measured rhythm, but as the protagonist Franck lets himself fall further into murderous Michel's hands, the tension only escalates until the aforementioned distinction seems to completely blur. And what a fitting end to the story, wherein Franck at first tries to escape from Michel's grasp, but ends up looking for his lover, calling out his name desperately.


Also: The long take where Franck watches Michel drowning his lover with utter silence engulfing the entire landscape literally sent chills down my spine -- from which point on Franck becomes more drawn to Michel, setting off that whole battle between sexual and death drives. And how about that shot where, the day after Franck witnessed the murder, Michel emerges out of the lake and his beautiful but menacing face looms in close-up right in front of Franck.


Further musings: I can't really say I've seen many movies classified as queer cinema, but given the changing political, social and legal landscape for LGBT rights, I started wondering how much that'll affect the future of LGBT-themed films. Because, as much as Stranger by the Lake uses a specifically gay culture as a foundation for its genre trappings, it's not at all about making a political statement, treats the gay experience as mundane and part of everyday, and deliberately blurs the genre distinctions. Anyway, all in all, a very good picture. Hopefully will check the rest of Guiraudie's oeuvre out soon.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

2014 BAFTA (British Academy Film Awards) Predictions - RESULTS Update





Here are my last-minute BAFTA predictions:


Best Picture

12 Years a Slave  - WINNER
American Hustle
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Philomena

Should win: Gravity or 12 Years a Slave
Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

- As with the Golden Globes, I don't have a clear favorite among these BP nominees. Whether there's actually been 12-Years-a-Slave sweep-voting we will never know, but I believe that Steve McQueen has the home advantage here (see Director).


British Film

Gravity -- WINNER
Philomena
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
The Selfish Giant
Rush
Saving Mr. Banks

Should win: The Selfish Giant
Will win:  GRAVITY

-Since the nominations were announced, I've been asking myself, So exactly what aspect of Gravity is even remotely British? I heard it has a British special effects team, that's why. Well, nice to see British Clio Barnard's very British The Selfish Giant hanging in there.



Best Director

Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Quaron (Gravity)  --  WINNER
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Should win: Martin Scorsese
Will win: Steve McQueen

-I know, the name we'll hear announced instead is different than what I just typed, but let's say I find that speculation about the 12YAS sweep-voting to be so convincing I bet against the odds-on favorite.



Leading Actress

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)  -- WINNER
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
Judi Dench (Philomena)

Should win: Cate Blanchett
Will win: Cate Blanchett

-Nobody wants to get wrong about this one.


Leading Actor 

Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)  --  WINNER
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Christian Bale (American Hustle)

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

-Actually, I do think Leo has a very good shot at winning and it turned out he's my favorite among this talented bunch. I'm fine with anyone but Mr. Bale taking home the prize.



Supporting Actress 

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)  -- WINNER
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels' The Butler)

Should win: Sally Hawkins
Will win: Lupita Nyong'o

-Couldn't be happier Hawkins got her first Oscar nomination -- I'd even go as far as to say hers is the most apt performance to be nominated in this category, and should there be ever an upset winner, that gotta be her. Sadly it won't happen.


Supporting Actor 

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)  -- WINNER
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra)

Should win: Matt Damon
Will win: Barkhad Abdi

-To me supporting actor is the trickiest category to predict. Matt Damon's clearly my favorite -- his sparring, chemistry and everything with Michael Douglas is about the best thing he's done in years. But his chances are not that promising, so I'm torn between Fassbender and Abdi -- ultimately, I predict the surprise winner will be Abdi (everybody -- me for one -- loves a victory narrative for an underdog).



Original Screenplay

American Hustle  -- WINNER
Blue Jasmine
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Should win: Inside Llewyn Davis
Will win: American Hustle

-What a shame the Coen bros got more nominations with the British than with the (mostly) Americans. David O. Russell won the BAFTA award last year for Silver Linings Playbook, and will very likely repeat the win as writer.


Adapted Screenplay

Captain Phillips
Philomena  -- WINNER
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
Behind the Candelabra

Should win: The Wolf of Wall Street, or Behind the Candelabra
Will win: 12 Years a Slave



Editing

Captain Phillips
Gravity
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
Rush  -- WINNER

Will win: Captain Phillips.

-I recently started thinking Captain Phillips might win the editing prize at the Oscars Girl-with-Dragon-Tattoo-style. If there's one category where the movie gets recognition, this would be it.



Cinematography

Captain Phillips
Gravity  --  WINNER
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
12 Years a Slave

Should win: Inside Llewyn Davis
Will win: Gravity

Bruno Delbonnel's contribution to the wintry look and feel of Llewyn Davis deserves a win, but Emmanuel Lubezki seems unstoppable at this point. Also to add: what I like most about 12 Years a Slave is Sean Bobbitt's cinematography, so congrats to him on being recognized here, who unfortunately didn't get an Oscar nomination.



Production Design

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Behind the Candelabra
Gravity
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER

Should win: The Great Gatsby
Will win: Behind the Candelabra

-I just realized that Soderbergh's melodrama has a LOT more noms than I initially thought. The Brits might spread the wealth across the below-the-line categories.



Costume Design

American Hustle
Behind the Candelabra
The Great Gatsby  --  WINNER
The Invisible Woman
Saving Mr. Banks

Should win: The Great Gatsby or Behind the Candelabra
Will win: American Hustle



Makeup & Hair

American Hustle  --  WINNER
Behind the Candelabra
The Butler
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Should win: Behind the Candelabra
Will win: American Hustle

-Started thinking American Hustle and Candelabra might well have been neck-and-neck in the production design, costume, and makeup categories.


Special Visual Effects

Gravity  -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek Into Darkness

Should win: Gravity
Will win: Gravity


Sound 

All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity  --  WINNER
Inside Llewyn Davis
Rush

Will win: Rush

-Rush snagged British film and editing noms as well as supporting actor; perhaps the Brits decided to be a bit more generous and that it wouldn't hurt to give Rush at least one.


Original Film Music

12 Years a Slave (Hans Zimmer)
The Book Thief (John Williams)
Captain Phillips (Henry Jackman)
Gravity (Steven Price)  --  WINNER
Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

Should win: Thomas Newman?
Will win: Gravity

-Thomas Newman could win.


Documentary 

The Act of Killing  --  WINNER
Blackfish
The Armstrong Lie
Tim's Vermeer
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

Will win: Act of Killing


Animated Film

Frozen   --  WINNER
Despicable Me 2
Monster University

Will win: Frozen


British Short Animation

Everything I Can See From Here
I Am Tom Moody
Sleeping With The Fishes  --  WINNER

Will win: Sleeping With The Fishes. Just because. (Haven't seen any nominee)


British Short Film

Island Queen
Keeping Up With The Joneses  --  WINNER
Orbit Ever After
Room 8
Sea View

Will win: Keeping Up With The Joneses. Ditto.


Foreign Language Film

The Great Beauty  --  WINNER
The Act Of Killing
Blue Is The Warmest Colour
Metro Manila
Wadjda

Will win: Blue Is The Warmest Color

- The Great Beauty could win.


EE Rising Star

Dane DeHaan
George MacKay
Lupita Nyong'o
Will Poulter
Lea Seydoux

Will win: Lea Seydoux



Fellowship

Dame Helen Mirren


Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema

Peter Greenaway


Friday, February 14, 2014

For Valentine's Day: Blue Valentine (2010)



BLUE VALENTINE (2010, USA)

dir. Derek Cianfrance



Google’s search results for Valentine’s Day movies will most likely include much-cherished romantic comedies, some Richard Curtis, and a string of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Among those is The Notebook (2004), which catapulted the Canadian darlings Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling to stardom, as well as to a highly staged Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. Though it might have topped some Valentine’s Day movie lists, I’m singling this out to introduce a better love story starring Gosling. After having added a couple of critically successful indies like Half Nelson (2006) to his resume in the intervening years, Gosling returned with Blue Valentine (2010), Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature.

This time, he partners up with Michelle Williams, and their portrayal of a gradually disintegrating relationship as Dean and Cindy feels exhaustingly real. Like Gosling’s previous affair with Adams spanning decades, this falling-out-of-love story also traverses different time frames, but Cianfrance’s more purposeful plotting does more than merely allow the characters a nostalgic revisit to the bittersweet old days or clue viewers in on some long-buried secrets. In Blue Valentine, it all starts with the death of the couple’s pet, which is but one of the many potential triggers. The opening scene presents a deceptively peaceful morning in a loving home, but as the dog’s death leads to an impulsive getaway to a love motel, we notice those familiar, seemingly insignificant signs of a relationship in trouble – misinterpreted words, alcoholism, or fading passion. The more they dwell on their miserable now, their beginnings filled with laughs, tears, and promises seem increasingly distant. Cianfrance repeats the calculated juxtaposition of past and present, building towards the film’s emotional peak, where the pair’s tearful wedding vows segue into the dusk-toned image of them parting ways. This marriage between the film’s formal gambit and its delicate, convincing depiction of a waning love sets Blue Valentine apart from other romantic dramas. Admittedly it’s a downer, but witnessing Gosling and Williams redefine authentic acting alone is worth it.



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)



INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013, USA)
dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen



Equal parts a dense character study and a soft-toned portrayal of the 1960s folk music scene, the Coen brothers' latest film has a modest but indelible scene a little past the hour mark, in which the protagonist Llewyn Davis trudges through the snow and clutches his worn-out corduroy jacket tight against a winter gust just when his foot slips in a slush puddle. It's soon followed by an equally unforgettable close-up of the foot as he struggles to take off the soaked shoe in a diner. He's thumbed his way to Chicago uninvited for an audition from New York, where he's basically an unknown drifter, couch to couch, earning a few bucks from a tip basket at the Gaslight Cafe, the then favorite hangout of aspiring folk singers

This trip may very well be his last opportunity to ever have a career, but the wet sock simply looks like a bad omen. He waits and hesitates before finally walking into a barely lit folk club called The Gate of Horn. With an impassive-looking producer sitting opposite him, Llewyn manages to pour whatever is left of his soul into his performance. His emotional rendition of "The Death of Queen Jane" predictably meets with a disheartening response: "I don't see a lot of money here." A heightened contrast between the macabre mood and natural sunlight streaming in through the wide open door accentuates the tragedy of the scene, though Llewyn nods in quiet resignation. Played by competent singer-and-actor Oscar Isaac, Llewyn graces the screen with a couple more showstoppers like this one throughout, assuring us viewers that he is indeed a hell of a talent; except he just never seems to have luck on his side. 

Life isn't fair, as it were, and success is forever elusive for Llewyn, despite his gift, integrity, and of course, Welsh name, which can perhaps lend him the mystique of a true artist. It seems what's missing is the likability factor -- a genuine, relatable entertainer persona. He learns during the aforementioned audition that he is not capable of moving people beyond warranted respect; it's admiration, maybe, but not necessarily love, that he elicits. That's how he differs from, say, Troy Nelson, a performer of approachable nature, who supposedly falls short of Llewyn's standards. In an early Gaslight-set scene, Llewyn can't help commenting on Troy's song with skepticism as he often does to his fellow musicians. But when their mutual friends Jean and Jim join Troy onstage and together get the customers to sing along, that moment of connection escapes Llewyn. 

It's something he can do very little about, but his self-destructive assholism isn't exactly a virtue, either. With that comes fecklessness, and he may have knocked up at least two women, including Jean. It's also implied from the outset, and clearly shown towards the end, that he's a frequent heckler. Moreover, a proud professional, Llewyn gets easily offended even by the Gorfeins, a generous senior couple with a diversified taste in music and a refined upper-middle-class home where he's a regular mooch, when they ask him to play and then Mrs Gorfein starts singing the harmony. Being an asshole definitely goes hand in hand with being unable to touch hearts. When he offers unprompted gigs, they fail to resonate: first with the Gate of Horn impresario, Bud Grossman, then later with his own ailing father, an ex-marine, who reacts by shitting his pants. 

It sure isn't merely all about his inability to connect with his audience on a more personal level. There's a pervasive sense of loss too, concerning Llewyn's late partner, Mike Timlin, on one hand, and all those missed chances of an alternative, more rewarding lifestyle on the other. He's constantly reminded of Mike's absence, and his journey to Chicago delivers a stultifying effect when, unaware of the loss, Grossman advises the duo reunite as if that were the only option to salvage Llewyn's career. As if he's destined to fail no matter what. 

That death and fate figure in Inside Llewyn Davis shouldn't surprise anyone conversant with the Coen brothers' work. Arguably, those elements contribute to a sort of pessimistic streak in their films, and certainly an outlook for Llewyn's future can be said to be just as bleak as that oncoming storm at the end of A Serious Man, another fable of a modern-day Job by the brothers. But Llewyn isn't someone completely subjugated to some force beyond his control. He chose that path over a settled life, family, and secure job. Along with the seemingly predetermined construction of a perpetual loser narrative, the Coens allow their consistent moral vision to complicate our perception of Llewyn. Aside from his aloofness in general, his spur-of-the-moment actions return to him with painful consequences. He can't ship out without his shipping license that he asked his sister to throw out; desperate to get money for Jean's abortion, he signs away royalties on a song that might become a huge hit. The identical scenes outside the Gaslight that bookend the movie reinforce that sense that, much as he's an unlucky genius, he gets what he deserves; he often digs his own hole and will never become a musician of Bob Dylan-caliber, but he has lived doing what he's best at, even though now it seems he's now saying goodbye to all this.

Then, of course, there is the cat. First it brings mellow hues and fluffy texture into the movie's otherwise depressingly wintry look and feel, then it tiptoes into Llewyn's life like a pure coincidence. Though the directors claimed that the film doesn't have a plot, the scenes organically link together, with clues that foreshadow later events, with bits of information that gradually reveal the implications of small things Llewyn does or chooses to do, the scope of his small world both inside and out. His heckling of an old lady, his bickering with Jean, his brief conversation with Troy, who mentions Grossman in passing, and an acquaintance he makes with Al Cody, which enables his trip to Chicago, to name a few. 

Fitting snugly into this well-organized plot is the cat, an entirely chance existence. The Coens keeps teasing us by suggesting Llewyn is the cat, or that the cat bears the same fate as Llewyn, or that the cat is a mirror image of what basically makes up Llewyn's life: his irresponsible self, a child he can't take care of, his own scars, or those he inflicted on others, his nomadic future, and so on. Whatever the cat is, it isn't anchored to one specific meaning. Near the end of the movie, Llewyn's story comes full circle, right back to the first sequence. He wakes up on a couch that doesn't belong to him, again, with a cat staring at him. It's the Gorfeins' couch; the Gorfeins' cat. 




My grade: 9